How to save for expected expenses

Have you ever been doing a great job sticking to your budget and then your auto license renews and you need a smog check and neither of those items is on your monthly budget? It can throw all your financial progress out of wack. However, these are perfect examples of irregular, but expected expenses.

When we sit down and work out our monthly budget it’s easy to forget the things that only occur once a year or every few months. So I thought I’d share the approach I’ve been using for almost 10 years to help me keep on top of my finances and stay out of debt.

Step 1: Identify irregularly occurring/expected expenses

At least once a year I update my “expected expenses”. This spreadsheet includes:

  • Auto license(s), oil changes, expected repairs
  • Nursing License, professional organization dues, re-certification fees, scrubs, work shoes
  • Blog expenses (domain name renewals, website hosting fees, etc.)
  • Bulk meat (can I have 1/2 a pig or 1/4 cow, please?)
  • Gifts (birthday, Christmas, mothers/father’s day, weddings, etc.)
  • Propane for our RV (it’s much more expensive in the winter)
  • Household repairs
  • Travel
  • Vet/Pet expenses

So this represents both bills that I know I’ll have on a specific date AND items that I’ll typically pay for during the year but that occurs when I don’t expect them (auto repairs or deductibles).

Step 2: Calculate Annual Total and divide by # of paychecks per year

Add up the total of all these expenses and divide by how many paychecks you receive in a year (Divide by 26 if you’re paid biweekly).

Step 3: Set funds aside from every paycheck

Create a savings account that is only used for these funds. Every 2 weeks, on payday, have your funds auto transferred to this savings account. It’s really cool to see the funds add up knowing that you are prepared.

For example, our washing machine in the RV is only two years old but it is broken and the warranty won’t cover it. That represents $1,000 of unexpected expenses. But we’ve been setting aside funds for RV repairs, so we have 1/2 of that already saved for this specific type of situation.

Step 4: When you incur an expense transfer it back to your checking account.

Personally, I do this once a month, but I know that may not work for everyone. The point is that you have cash available to cover the expense.

How to track this information

I use 2 tools to help me track this information:

  1. tracks my expenses and monthly budget. I have categories that correspond to the categories I’m saving for, so it’s easy to look at Mint to see how much needs to be transferred to checking
  2. I use a google spreadsheet with two tabs
    1. Annual Expenses is where I calculate the total amount I need to set aside each year and each paycheck
    2. Account Tracker is where I track how much I’ve saved for each category. I update this after each paycheck and each time I transfer funds back into my checking so I have an accurate view of how much I have saved for each category.

My “expected expenses” savings account is at, an online bank. They recently added a new tool to their savings accounts called “buckets”. It’s possible that this tool will replace my need for the google spreadsheet.

Check out this google spreadsheet template

Here is a template for tracking annual expenses and how much you have saved for each category: Account Tracker Template. There are instructions within the google spreadsheet.

Effective meetings & effective note-taking

This is the last post in my series on organization. Meetings may not be something that you immediately tie to being organized, but I’m including it because meetings can be either a huge time suck or a useful tool in creating organization among a group of people. And I can’t talk about meetings without talking about taking effective notes.

Stop wasting time; only do effective meetings

I hate going to useless meetings. When working as a project manager for a tech company I spent a large portion of my life in meetings.meetings

I have led meetings with CEOs, CFOs and Executive Vice Presidents. I have led training sessions with dozens of peers and team members. Here’s what I’ve learned: If you absolutely have to lead or go to a meeting, make sure it’s a useful investment of time for everyone.

  • If you’re leading: Know why you’re meeting and what you want to accomplish by the end of the meeting. Then tell participants what it is so they can be prepared.
  • If you’re attending: Ask what the goal is so you can be prepared to participate (and to help prompt the meeting organizer to think about why they want a group of people together!)
  • Bring everything you may need with you (notes and documents)
  • Take effective notes (see below).
  • Wrap up a meeting with a list of who is going to do what by when and send that out to attendees.

This last point is really important. I can’t tell you how many meetings I’ve wrapped up with where people have completely different ideas of where we landed/where we were headed. #disasteraverted

Learn how to take effective notes

Why you should take notes

Taking notes serve a few purposes:

stack of steno pads

4 years of meeting notes

  1. They can help you focus on what’s actually happening in a meeting.
  2. It makes it look like you are engaged and participating.
  3. It’s a good place to jot potential action items.
  4. It’s a good place to jot ideas you want to come back to.
  5. You have something to refer back to later if you need to.

My primary reason for note-taking used to be #1 and #3. Since starting nursing school I actually look back at my notes.

How to take notes

When I started actually looking back at my notes I realized that I often had no idea what they meant. So I started exploring note-taking techniques.

  • A combination of Mind mapping and something that resembles the “bullet” portion of the Bullet Journal seems to work for me.
  • I’m intrigued by the Smart Wisdom method and plan to explore this in the future
  • The Cornel method didn’t really stick with me, but it may be useful to check out.

Where to take notes

While I like to use technology for most things, I prefer handwriting notes in meetings or lectures. When I type, I have a harder time differentiating what’s important and don’t necessarily remember what I typed. There is also a bunch of research about how handwriting helps you remember.

I’m a fan of Gregg-ruled steno pads.

But if you like to go digital with your note-taking, you can check out [my favorite note apps here].

Check out the rest of this series

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Don’t let papers over-run your life: file organization

Filing is the bane of my existence. I know some organization-lovers who enjoy the process of alphabetizing, but I’m not one of them. I wished I never had to file another piece of a paper, but the truth is I have important documents that I need to be able to find when I need them.

As part of my series on organization, here are my tips on how I keep up with file organization.

Go digital whenever possible

scan-appI highly recommend scanning important documents and saving them on a cloud drive. This reduces the amount of paper I carry around and makes it so easy to find the important things I need.

To do this you’ll need a Scanner App + an app for storing documents.

  • Scanning app:
    • I use Turbo Scan
      • It automatically identifies the edges of the document and allows you to back-up all documents to the cloud.
      • $4.99. Available on iPhone and Android
  • Cloud storagegoogle-drive
    • For the non-techies, you can think of this like saving files in a folder on your computer. But instead of the file being in only one place (the computer where you saved it) it’s saved on the internet so you can access it anywhere.
    • I use Google Drive because I can use Google Docs and Google Sheets to create/edit documents online without needing download the file.
    • Other popular drive apps: Dropbox, iCloud

Just the other day this came in handy because I forgot a paper for a meeting, but I had scanned it and could immediately email it to the person I was meeting with.

Tips so you can find your digital files later

  • Keep all of your documents about one topic in one place (as opposed to having some attached to emails, some in your google drive, and some on your computer). I had this problem during the first semester of nursing school and spent way too much time trying to figure out where a file I needed was located.
  • Be consistent and detailed in naming files so you can easily search for them later.
    • Sometimes I start the file name with YYMM (YY=year, MM=Month) so I can easily sort documents in date order.

For paper files

As much as I’d like to have no paper files, I have no intention of taking the time to scan everything that I need to keep (tax-related, health-related, bills, etc.). So here’s how I handle my papers:

Active papers

For the papers that I need to do something with I use clear wall files. I put them on the wall using 3m strips. I label them “to do,” “to read,” and “to shred.” The cost for a set of 2 is about $11.


To File

I keep a box in my closet called “to file.” When that box starts to overflow (every 3-6 months), I file them in my archive folders.

Archive Files

When I finally get around to actually filing, I use a file box (approximate cost of $13-15) and hanging folders ( approximate cost of $10-20).


I invest some time once every year or two to create all the folders I could possibly need so when it’s time to file I can just drop in paperwork. And honestly, if I’m filing and I don’t have a folder for it, sometimes I just dump it back in my “to file” box.

Then when I do my taxes I grab all the financial files for that year and put them all together and toss other files from the year that I won’t need.

Check out the rest of this series

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Organization apps; Feel more in control of your life

This post is a continuation of my series on organization. I’ve been an organization nerd since childhood. When asked what I wanted as a gift, I’d tell people I wanted office supplies so I could “play office.” Now, instead of excitement about new office supplies, I get excited about trying out new productivity apps and websites. I love using technology to organize.

The apps and websites I use to keep my life organized

Tasks Apps; To-do Apps

  • My favorite task app is Wunderlisttodo
    • Free
    • Available for Mac, Android and desktop
    • I like having the ability to create subtasks under a task. I also like the options for recurring tasks
  • I know many people who love the productivity app Asana
    • Free
    • Available for Mac, Android and desktop

You can check out my tips for organizing tasks and getting this done on this post.

Calendar & Contacts

I previously used Google, but I’m currently using the default iPhone apps. Regardless of what app you use, I beg you to pick something that syncs to the cloud to avoid posting the “send me your phone number because I lost my phone” message.


  • I use SaneBox to keep email from overwhelming my life.sanebox
  • Why do I love (and pay for!) it? By simply transferring an email to a folder I can ensure one of these things:
    • I will NEVER see an email from that sender again
    • This email will come back to my inbox when I need to deal with it in a week (or some other timeframe)
    • This email will get grouped with all my other promotional/bulk emails that I may want to see but I don’t want to clutter my inbox


I used Notes to create a drawing indicating the measurements in my bathroom

The apps I use are:

  • iPhone Notes
    • Apple keeps adding features that make this app so useful. Now you can draw in it and add photos.
  • Evernote
    • When I started using it in 2012 it was the best option. I still use it because
      • I have over 1,000 articles saved and I don’t feel like moving them anywhere else.
      • I like their web clipper extension for Chrome
    • They’ve changed their pricing model, so the free plan only allows 2 devices and 60MB of uploads per month.


mintI highly recommend using a tool that aggregates information about all your accounts so you can quickly see how much cash you have on hand and how much debt you’ve accrued.

  • The website I use: which is owned by Intuit (the makers of TurboTax). Mint automatically categorizes your purchases so you can see where your money is going and you can set budgets that alert you when you’ve overspent.
  • If you use another website/app for this, make sure they are owned by legitimate companies.


  • I use TripIt, which is a website and app that organizes all your travel reservations into one place. It can even automatically grab your reservations from your email inbox if you want it to.

Password tips. Use technology safely

Don’t use the same password everywhere1password. To keep all these different passwords straight:

  • Come up with a password algorithm so every password is different but you can still remember them. Learn more about creating password algorithms.
  • Buy an app that stores (and/or generates) passwords.
    • Please don’t use a free app
    • Make sure the app you use is encrypted.
    • I use: 1Password

Check out the rest of this series

This blog contains affiliate links.

Getting stuff done: how to organize tasks and stay focused

This is the second post in my series on getting organized. Today we’re focusing on how to prioritize tasks and stay focused until they’re finished.

#1 Use a system that reminds you

I’m a huge fan of Getting Things Done (GTD). To get a feel for the concept behind todoappsGTD, ask yourself, “Does my brain consistently remind me what I need to do when and where I need to do them?” If so, that’s awesome. If you’re like me, you remember that you needed to buy milk while you’re in the shower instead of at the grocery store.

So, this leads to the idea that you need a reliable system to keep track of, and remind you about, the things you need to do.

highly recommend digital to-do lists like Wunderlist or Asana, but if a handwritten list works better for you, check out the Bullet Journal Format or Franklin Covey (a time-tested planner system).

#2 Identify all the things you need to do

Do an initial brain dump of every single thing you can think of that you need to do. The initial brain dump could take a LONG time depending on how many ideas and responsibilities you have.  Once you’ve done this you’ll probably feel overwhelmed, so…

#3 Prioritize all the things

Now that you have this monstrous list of things, use Eisenhower’s Urgent/Important Principle to figure out what to do now, soon, later or never.

Basically, you organize your tasks into four buckets:

  1. The important and urgent things.Urgent/Important Priorities
    • Ask, “Is this really as urgent as it seems?” If so ask, “What is the quickest way I can get this off my plate?”
    • This may mean delegating or getting it to a “good enough” place so you can focus on #2.
  2. Important but not urgent things.
    • This is where you want to focus most of your energy.
    • These are activities that help you achieve your goals.
    • Ask, “What other things do I need to say ‘no’ to so I can make this happen?”
  3. Urgent, but not important.
    • Avoid these whenever possible. They easily absorb the time and energy you need for #2.
    • Ask yourself, “Is this really as urgent as it seems?”
  4. Not important and not urgent.
    • Ask yourself, “Do I really need to do this?”
    • If the activity is to help you destress/unwind, ask yourself, “Does this activity actually refresh me?” If not, try something new until you find activities that bring more energy to your life.

Other questions to help prioritize

  • Ask, “what will happen if I don’t do this?”
    • When I was a project manager I would often prioritize tasks that would lead to a lot of interruptions if I didn’t get them done first.
  • Ask, “What’s one thing I can do right now to make everything else easier or unnecessary?”

#4 Focus on the important things

Once you’ve prioritized what’s important it requires discipline to actually accomplish the important things.

Say “no”

One of the most important actions you can take that will help you stay focused is saying “no.” By making intentional decisions on where you invest your time and energy you can make progress toward the things that are truly important to you.

Get started; Decrease procrastination

I haven’t found the magic potion to eliminate procrastination, but here’s how I deal when I have an activity that I’m avoiding:

  • Be a “productive procrastinator.” I’ll knock off all the easy/little tasks that I pomodorocan find. These are often from buckets #1 and #3 (see above). This ends up freeing up mental space so I can focus.
  • I use the Pomodoro technique which alternates 25 minutes of focus with breaks. I can typically find motivation to focus for 20-25 minutes. And then after the first break I’ve normally found a groove that gets me to keep going. I use the Block & Flow iPhone app.

Stay on task

The things that help you stay on task will be unique to you. Ask yourself, “What distracts me? What are some creative ways I can combat that distraction?” Here are some of the things I do that work for me:

  • Keep my phone on vibrate and limit the number of apps that send me notifications
  • Work in quiet space or use earplugs
  • Do the “heavy lifting” when I first wake up before I talk to anyone. This is my peak performance time. Everyone’s circadian rhythm is different. To find your peak time ask yourself, “What time during the day do I feel the most effective/productive?”
  • Rewarding myself after I complete big things. (Frozen yogurt!)
  • Have a post-it note with a short list of my current priorities in the order I need to complete them.
  • If I keep thinking of other things I need to do, I do a brain dump of all the things so I can add it to my to-do app and get it off my mind.

#5 Stop keeping tasks in your mind

Instead, when you think of a task, add it to your list. Keeping all your tasks out of your head creates space to think about new ideas and to focus on the thing you’re doing right now.

Check out the rest of this series

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Organization tips and tricks

I was recently asked to lead a workshop about organizing. As a self-professed “organization nerd,” I’ve discovered that organization is really about doing whatever works best for you. I see organizing as small adjustments that help people feel like they have a little more power over their physical space and time.

organization-topics-from-workshopSo instead of lecturing on the best ways to organize, I decided to make the workshop a conversation. We started with asking every attendee the question, “what area of your life feels the most out of control?”

The answers included:

workshop-handoutKnowing it would be impossible to cover everything people were concerned about, I compiled a handout with the tips and tricks I thought would be the most helpful to share with others. My plan was to share the handout, but it has turned into a blog series with organization tips.

Future posts will include: getting stuff done, using technology to keep the information you need within easy reach, keeping papers from overrunning your life, and how to be effective at leading meetings and taking notes. For now, we’ll begin with some basic tips on organization.

General Tips

  • Be okay with not getting everything done
  • Have a place for everything, including a junk drawer
  • Have a “home” for all the things you use regularly
  • Be realistic about what you can keep up with (don’t over achieve when you organize)

You can check out the PDF of the handout I shared, or you can stay tuned for the additional posts in this series.